Refugees in Japan

The following is the first of several (slightly modified) excerpts I’d like to share from my book Japan’s Open Future.

The Japanese government affirms that “refugee assistance is a bounden duty of a member of the international community,” and “one of the important pillars of Japan’s contribution to world peace and prosperity.” The country does send money to support refugees overseas—it gave $75 million in 2006 to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). But the reality inside Japan is a far cry from its rhetoric and money sent abroad; any refugee who seeks a home in Japan is playing against terrible odds. Between 1981, when Japan ratified the UN Convention on Refugees, and 2002, Japan accepted just over 300 people as refugees. Put differently, all the refugees Japan admitted over a twenty-year period under the convention could fit onto a single airplane. Consider the difference: whereas in 2001 Japan admitted 26 refugees out of about a million asylumseekers worldwide, in that same year the US admitted more than 20,000, Germany admitted more than 17,000 and Britain admitted more than 14,000. Even though the US and Europe have tightened their rules since 9/11, they still admit far more refugees than Japan. As TAKIZAWA Saburo, the UNHCR Representative in Japan, commented in a 2008 speech, “The ratio of asylum seekers coming to Japan is only 0.0013%”; when they look to Japan as a potential home, he said, they see “walls” and “structural barriers.”

Drilling down from the aggregate numbers, what is it like for an individual asylum-seeker in Japan? Saul Takahashi, former Refugee Coordinator for Amnesty International in Japan, tells the story of meeting with Mohammed, a Nuba from Sudan, who had been tortured and whipped by the army. Takahashi tries to get Mohammed to understand what he is up against in hoping to become a refugee in Japan: “I tell him that it is practically impossible to get asylum in Japan … It will take years and during this time he will not get a work permit or any aid at all, [and] after they turn him down, he may be detained and deported.” In response, “Mohammed is silent for a minute. Then he says that he must try. He has no choice. He can’t go home. He has no place to go.”

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Donate Locally. Clown Globally

It is a tradition in my wife’s family to give charitable donations in lieu of gifts, so over the holidays I had occasion to spend an afternoon looking at the Web sites of different charities. As you would expect, there are a lot of impressive organizations out there, entities like Amnesty International and Medecins sans Frontiers, that are justly famous for doing amazing work. However, looking up charities re-acquainted me with an organization that also does great things, but which is not as well know as its more established counterparts. I would therefore like to take a moment to publicize one of my favourite international aid groups: Clowns Without Borders.

You read that right: not doctors. Clowns. The first time I heard their name I got such a kick out of it I had to make a donation on the spot, even though I wasn’t quite sure what they did. It turns out they go into refugee camps and other crisis zones and perform circus shows for children. If you click on their Web page there are photos of CWB expeditions to Haiti and elsewhere. The looks on the faces of the kids they are entertaining are priceless.

There is an ongoing debate about international aid that suggests that some traditional development goals are more likely to be achieved through charitable giving than others. Roughly speaking, aid projects that have sought to foster political institutions have not done as well as more medically oriented projects. Clowns Without Borders bring refugee children relief from despair, which could plausibly be regarded as a form of medical aid, in the area of psychological health. But regardless of whether their work is classified as medical, political or some combination of the two, it is an example of a creative and effective form of charitable aid.

As one borderless clown told the BBC during a trip to Palestine, “people told me that big international organizations give them clothes and food, but that nobody ever makes them smile.”

Important disclaimer: despite their name, Clowns Without Borders are in no way affiliated with the current Bush administration.

Justice, justice thou shall pursue

Orwell's Big Brother: inspiration for U.S. asylum law?

Above: Orwell’s Big Brother. The inspiration for U.S. asylum law?

Last week Canadian federal judge Michael Phelan struck down Canada’s so-called Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States. The 2004 agreement allowed Canada to turn away asylum-seekers who arrived at the Canadian border on foot, on the understanding that they should make an asylum claim in the U.S. instead (one of the deal’s quirks was that it did not apply to asylum-seekers who arrived in Canada by air). After the Montreal Gazette editorialized against the decision and called for it to be appealed, refugee advocates Janet Dench and Rick Goldman published a thoughtful response, pointing out one of the most well-documented problems with the American asylum system. Under U.S. law, people who are forced by terrorist groups to hand over money are considered terrorists themselves, and so not eligible for asylum. As Dench and Goldman write:

a person who is forced under threat of physical harm to cook for or to temporarily house members of an armed militia, such as Colombia’s FARC or Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers, is barred from refugee protection in the United States for having provided “material support” to terrorists. As the court notes this “turns child soldiers, those forced (often at gunpoint) to support terrorist groups, and those coerced to pay revolutionary taxes, into terrorists in the U.S. system and subject to refoulement (return to persecution).” In Canada, they could be accepted as refugees.

When I did a radio documentary on the rights of refugees last year, I interviewed a Columbian man who had been extorted by FARC and fled to the U.S., only to be told by an immigration judge that this made him a terrorist, after which he finally obtained refugee status in Canada (prior to the deal coming into effect). There is something Orwellian about the way the U.S. classifies foreign victims of terrorism as terrorists themselves, and it is good to see Canada’s participation in such a process called into question.

Something surprising about the ruling is that it downplays what a lottery the U.S. asylum system is, even for non-Columbians. People who make asylum claims in the U.S. do not have a right to legal aid, and so often have to depend on lawyers willing to work for free. As a result many people seeking asylum wind up going through hearings with no legal representation at all. According to Harvard Law professor Deborah Anker, U.S. asylum-seekers with lawyers are four to six times more likely to succeed than those without.

Justice Phelan disregards this consideration on the grounds that only six Canadian provinces provide legal aid to people seeking asylum, and so the two systems are not that different in this respect. No doubt he’s right from a strictly legal point of view. But as the judge himself notes, most of the people who make asylum claims in Canada do so in a province where they have access to legal aid, which reduces the likelihood that they will be rejected simply because they have no one to represent them. This seems an important practical difference between the two programs, whether or not it arises out of the letter of the law. For this reason, I hope the government ignores the Gazette‘s advice and does not try to bring the agreement back.

Unfortunately, the Gazette is not the only outlet calling for an appeal. The Globe ran an editorial (now behind a pay wall) objecting to the decision on the following grounds:

Experts predict that if the judge’s ruling stands, the Canadian government will have to process thousands, perhaps more than 10,000, additional refugee claimants each year. Imagine the extra burden that would impose on an already strained refugee system, potentially siphoning off resources that would be better spent on bringing to Canada government-sponsored refugees who have been designated by the UNHCR—people who having been living in camps for years—than on coping with a major influx of asylum shoppers who come knocking on Canada’s door.

The idea that diverting resources away from Canada’s in-land asylum system will help refugees in overseas camps is unlikely. The governments of developing countries with large camp populations often take their cues on how to treat refugees from the industrialized world. As refugee analyst Arafat Jamal has pointed out, “Nations that absorb the most refugees in Africa will often cite the EU or U.S. tightening their policies as a rationale for them to tighten their own policies.” To take but one example, after the U.S. Supreme Court brought down a negative decision regarding the right to asylum in 1994, both Tanzania and Thailand used it as an excuse to go even further, and brought in even harsher policies of their own. If Canada wants to help overseas refugees, the way to do so is not to exacerbate this trend, but to serve as a model of first asylum, a role the United States and the European Union no longer perform. Justice Phelam’s decision is a breakthrough in that regard. Even if he is eventually over-ruled, he deserves our thanks and admiration.